As good as the Oakland A's lineup is right now, imagine this: They could have had Edwin Encarnacion in it as well.
Before we get there, however, let's back up a bit. Not to Texas, where Encarnacion began his professional career. Not to Cincinnati, where Encarnacion reached the big leagues but never won over the Reds' front office, in part because he was a lousy third baseman, in part because of an incident early in the 2007 when he didn't run out a pop fly, in part because they couldn't move him to first base with Joey Votto around.
No, let's go back to June 21, 2010, when Encarnacion was hitting .200 with nine home runs for the Blue Jays in 37 games. The Jays were 38-32, 5½ games out in the tough AL East. (Remember when the AL East was the best division in baseball?) They needed space on the 40-man roster for a pitcher named Scott Richmond, who was ready to return from the 60-day disabled list. Richmond had posted a 5.57 ERA in 2009, but, hey, maybe the Blue Jays were desperate for pitching help.
They designated Encarnacion for assignment, which means they had 10 days to trade him, release him or outright him to the minors if he cleared waivers. I mean, the batting average wasn't great, but he was still slugging .467 and he had a .167 batting average on balls in play, which suggested he had been hitting into some bad luck when he wasn't hitting the ball over the fence. The Blue Jays surely knew this. They had analytics guys in their front office. But I guess they really liked Richmond.
Plus, general manager Alex Anthopoulos was pretty sure that Encarnacion, who was set to make about $2.7 million the rest of the season, wouldn't get claimed on waivers. He even said so: "With respect to the performance and the salary of the player, I would say it's unlikely."
He knew it was a risk. But Anthopoulos was right; no team claimed Encarnacion. Think the Mariners could have taken a chance on a guy like that? Their first baseman at the time was Casey Kotchman, hitting .190. Their designated hitters were batting .185. But the other 29 teams all passed on Encarnacion. He was 27 years old and nobody wanted him. That doesn't say much for a player's future.
Encarnacion was outrighted to Triple-A Las Vegas. He played seven games there. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were playing a guy named Jarrett Hoffpauir at third base. He wasn't really a third baseman, having played primarily second base in the minors. He was also just a few months younger than Encarnacion. I'm not making any of this up. Remember, the Blue Jays were 38-32 when all this stuff began.
Anyway, that didn't last long. Hoffpauir wasn't any good, and Encarnacion was soon back with the Blue Jays in early July. He hit .269/.310/.491 the rest of the season. He hit five home runs the final four games of the season. Now we get to the A's part. The Blue Jays non-tendered Encarnacion, worried about a potential $6 million salary via arbitration and a wrist injury that had forced him to miss time. The A's claimed him on waivers. GM Billy Beane said he wanted some right-handed power.
So the A's did have him. Maybe you knew this already; maybe you forgot. There was a time when nobody wanted Encarnacion, now one of the best hitters in baseball. Sound like a familiar story? The Blue Jays certainly didn't want him, at least not for $6 million.
In the end, neither did the A's. A few weeks later, when it was deadline time to offer 2011 contracts, the A's balked. They did offer a contract to Kevin Kouzmanoff. Such is life; we all make mistakes, even Beane. The A's eventually ended up with Josh Donaldson as their third baseman, so it worked out for them in the long run, although E.E. would look nice as a DH hitting between Donaldson and Brandon Moss.
So the Blue Jays brought Encarnacion back again, signing him as a free agent for $2.5 million for 2011 with a $3.5 million club option for 2012. That's how Encarnacion remained with the Blue Jays even after leaving them. He adjusted his swing and became a beast, blasting 42 home runs in 2012 and 36 last year, when he walked more times than he struck out.
Anyway, that's a long way of getting to this: After a slow start, Encarnacion is scorching hot at the plate right now. He homered twice in Tuesday's win over the Red Sox, blasting two rockets over the Green Monster. He homered twice more on Wednesday in another Toronto win, lining a 2-0 meatball from Clay Buchholz over the Monster in the second inning and then a 1-0 curveball to left-center in the third.
That's four multihomer games for Encarnacion in May, giving him 11 for the month and 13 for the year. After striking out in 21 percent of his plate appearances in April, he's fanned in just 11 percent of his PAs in May. He's locked in again, much like the past two seasons. And that makes the Jays a formidable threat in the AL East. They've won seven of nine and are tied with the Yankees for first in the division.
You know, sabermetrics is about trying to discover the truths hidden within this great game. But one of the great things about baseball is that there are no absolute truths, other than the team that wins the final game of the season is the champion. Encarnacion was 27 years old, was viewed as a disappointment and was essentially tossed aside like a rotten piece of meat.
Players aren't supposed to get better after age 27.
Sometimes they do.